Halifax’s little-known Deadman’s Island gets its name from being the final resting place of many people from the early to mid-19th century, especially American prisoners of war held at the Melville Island military prison.
Deadman’s Island, while not technically an island, is a beautiful and historic small peninsula that juts into Halifax’s Northwest Arm at Melville Cove, off of Purcell’s Cove Road.
It is registered as a Halifax Regional Municipality civic historic park, with an entrance at 24 Pinehaven Drive. The park is open, from 5am to 10pm daily, for activities including walking, picnicking and reflection.
Deadman’s Island provides scenic views of adjacent Melville Cove, Melville Island (home of the Armdale Yacht Club which is built over and around the former prison complex) and the Northwest Arm. It is part of the Melville Island and Deadman’s Island National Historic Site.
According to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and Parks Canada plaque, Deadman’s Island “and the island beyond were once the site of a military prison, hospital, and burial place where nearly 400 people are believed to have been interred between 1803 and 1856. They recall Nova Scotia’s role in a system of prisons established by the British Admiralty further to international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war. It is the only known site of such a military prison to have existed in Canada during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. Melville Island and Deadman’s Island offer a rare glimpse of prisoners of war conditions in the colonial period.”
Referring to the prison infrastructure of Melville Island the Deadman’s Island burial ground on pages 22 and 23 of Volume II of his 1829 “An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia,” Thomas Chandler Haliburton records that “the buildings are in a state of neglect and decay; a wooden bridge connects the Island with the main land, and on a small hill to the southward is the burying ground belonging to the establishment. It is now no longer to be distinguished from the surrounding woods, but by the mounds of earth which have been placed over the dead; the whole being covered with a thick shrubbery of forest trees.”
Nearly 200 American prisoners of war from the War of 1812 are buried on Deadman’s Island (referred to at the time as Target Hill). Their names are remembered on a plaque erected in the park in 2005.
It is also believed that many African-Americans who came to Canada seeking freedom (but who were held at Melville Island) are buried on Deadman’s Island.
Due to a variety of favourable geographic factors, there is a potential for Pre-Contact archaeological remains on and around Deadman’s Island. Archaeological geophysical methods, such as ground penetrating radar, could be used to potentially delineate burials on Deadman’s Island. The archaeological resources of Deadman’s Island are regulated by the Special Places Protection Act.
In the late 1990s, Deadman’s Island was under threat from development, a common danger for heritage within the Halifax Regional Municipality.
Concerned community members formed together to research and defend Deadman’s Island.
Subsequently, the site was protected as parkland and national and international media coverage on the American POW burial ground lead to annual Memorial Day services being held on Deadman’s Island by the US military and government representatives.
David Jones is an archaeologist and historian from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Thursdays at Noon, David Jones has a weekly thirty minute history segment on The Rick Howe Show, NEWS 95.7. David enjoyed visiting Deadman’s Island for this story and lives a block away, in Downtown Dartmouth, from the Newcastle Street location of a former Napoleonic War prison.